The government has told the equality watchdog that it plans to slash its budget again, even though the financial year has already started.
The planned cuts only emerged after the Government Equalities Office (GEO) told Disability News Service (DNS) that it was still “in the process of agreeing budgets” with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, several weeks into the new financial year.
The comment came after DNS asked GEO about the commission’s plans to make up to 30 of about 200 members of staff redundant (pictured).
GEO said that it was “not currently aware of any issues in this area”, but added: “We are in the process of agreeing budgets with the EHRC and no decisions have been made.”
When asked why GEO was still discussing budgets with the EHRC in late April, when the commission had already announced that its core budget for 2016-17 would be £17.1 million, a GEO spokeswoman said: “We have nothing further to add.”
She also refused to comment on why the GEO was not aware that the commission had issued a consultation paper on the redundancies last week.
EHRC said it does not yet know how large the cut to its budget will be, or whether any of the projects laid out in its business plan are now at risk.
There will be concerns that sizeable government cuts could put at risk some of the watchdog’s plans for 2016-17, including commissioning research into the human rights impact of the government’s welfare reforms, an inquiry into disabled people’s housing, as well as projects on disability hate crime, discrimination in health and social care, and in education, and on pay gaps.
In response to a question from DNS at a seminar on the report of the Lords committee that examined the impact of the Equality Act on disabled people, Melanie Field, EHRC’s executive director for strategy and policy, said they had been “pressing [GEO] quite hard” to decide on the final budget settlement.
She said: “We do know that the spending review settlement meant a spending reduction across government and the Department for Education [DfE, which is where GEO is based] has been subject to a cut, so we are expecting that our budget will be reduced this year.”
Disabled campaigners at the seminar – which was organised by the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds, the legal firm Unity Law, and the Cloisters set of barristers – said they were deeply concerned that yet more cuts were being inflicted on the commission.
Sarah Rennie, a member of the disabled women’s organisation Sisters of Frida, said: “Cutting the budget is a damning reflection of the value placed on achieving real equality and combatting indignity and oppression.
“Aside from the Lords’ recent recommendations, the commission has crucial work to do on many intersectional issues, including safety for disabled women on public transport and the availability of accessible refuges.
“The EHRC needs the fair resources to get on with this.”
Disabled campaigner Doug Paulley, who spoke at the conference, said: “The EHRC is supposed to take the burden of enforcing the Equality Act off disabled people.
“The Disability Rights Commission used to do that… the EHRC don’t do that.
“If they get less and less money, they are going to do that less and less.”
Fellow disabled activist Simone Aspis, of Changing Perspectives, also criticised the cut, which she said had to be seen “in the context of the government’s continuing attack on disabled people’s rights to justice… and any rights that disabled people have to challenge government decisions”.
A commission spokesman had said earlier in a statement: “Following the spending review (where DfE are being required to make overall savings of 20 per cent) and through regular discussions with GEO, it is clear the government intends to reduce our budget along with those of other public bodies.
“We have planned for this year on the basis of the indicative settlement [£17.1 million] set out in our business plan, published at the end of March.
“While we still await details of our formal settlement, we know already that we will need to make significant savings.
“It is therefore important we involve staff as early as possible and start planning for the future and that was the process we started last week.
“Responsible leadership is about facing up to future challenges, not ducking them. Our operating model sets out changes that can help us deliver more impact as well as help us in managing difficult change.”
By noon today (28 April), EHRC had been unable to say if it had been told to expect a 20 per cent cut to its £17.1 million budget; whether the cuts would mean that parts of its business plan were now at risk; or why GEO appeared to have been unaware of the commission’s consultation on possible redundancies.
The watchdog’s core budget for 2016-17 had been frozen at £17.1 million, still a real terms cut, which followed years of cuts to its funding since the formation of the coalition government in 2010.
In 2010, the commission’s annual budget was as high as £62 million.
A budget of £17.1 million is already several million pounds lower than the annual budget of the Disability Rights Commission when it was merged into the new “cross-strand” equality body in 2007. At one time, EHRC employed as many as 525 people.